Eyes on November And the South
The electoral victories of Michelle Bachelet in Chile
and Evo Morales en Bolivia have filled Latin America
with renewed energy, expectations and dreams
of integration, sovereignty, justice and dignity.
An encouraging map is taking shape.
Will Nicaragua have a place on it?
For many reasons Nicaragua was at the center of world attention in the eighties. That’s how we felt, and that’s how we were seen. As of 1990, that perception was shattered and the coarsest provincialism invaded the country, along with glitzy US franchises and trademarks, tacky shopping malls and a sea of luxury SUVs. It made us feel that if we weren’t the center of anything we were at least just one more blip on the global market screen. No one watched us anymore, and we again found ourselves looking to the North. It’s now time to look southward.
Watching Latin AmericaAfter significant changes in recent years, even in recent months, Latin America has again become a focus of international attention. And there will probably be more changes this year. In the economic arena, the MERCOSUR common market in four southern cone countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia) stopped the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) initiative and the continent’s strongest countries are taking steps towards greater integration. In the political and social arenas, Venezuela has undergone a drastic transformation, with all the upheaval that presumes, and another is anticipated in Bolivia, South America’s most impoverished country, albeit with different nuances. Culturally, the first woman on the continent to be elected President based on her own merits and political trajectory is taking office in Chile determined to put a “gender” stamp on her policies, and the first indigenous person ever to govern on the continent will be taking office in Bolivia following a long struggle in his country’s social movements, determined to transform the resistance of our first peoples into opportunities for life and development.
Not black and whiteIn the simplistic scheme circulating among the analysts of “pensamiento único,” or one-size-fits-all thinking, the Left governing on the continent today only has two variants: the populist Left and the modern Left; lucid leaders and demagogues. These analysts conveniently paint the world black and white to avoid reflecting on the innumerable shades of gray, which today’s Latin American Left is displaying.
They list the governments of Colonel Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and coca growers’ leader Evo Morales in Bolivia as “populist” Left, those of pediatrician Michelle Bachelet in Chile and oncologist Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay as “modern” Left and the governments of workers’ leader Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva in Brazil and lawyer Néstor Kirchner in Argentina as wavering between the two. Still pending classification is Mexican presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who demonstrated a leftist orientation while governing the Federal District.
But the gamut is really much more diverse, given the different trajectories of each leader and the platforms they ran under and according to which they are now governing. There’s no black and white; only grays. What all these Latin American Lefts have in common is that they are a reaction to the cold, dehumanizing reality of neoliberalism, which has accentuated inequality and undermined social solidarity throughout the continent for the past two decades. Reality itself provides the tones and nuances in each case, because the quantitative and qualitative effects of the neoliberal model are different in Chile or Bolivia.
Unite around theLatin America’s Left today is expressed not as an ideologized reaction against neoliberalism, a mere propagandistic denunciation, but as a set of different strategies and measures in response to its devastation of each country on the continent. It is precisely that variety that generates hope: it’s evidence that the Left has renewed and revitalized itself and is now trying out different solutions, united by the imperative to escape the neoliberal trap and seek social justice.
What is emerging from this plurality of Latin American leftist projects with different origins and pasts that are responding to national inequalities of quite varied levels is that a leftist bloc will not be consolidated in the near future. Nonetheless, if this Left is to survive in the sphere of greatest US influence, it will immediately have to seek forms of collaboration in all non-negotiable aspects: national sovereignty, defense of non-intervention, the struggle against poverty and for equity, war on corruption and defense of the environment.
Despite its centrality to the formulation of a leftist economic program, the vital issue of free trade seems to be one of the toughest to negotiate. Hugo Chávez’s proposed Free Bolivarian Trade Area doesn’t seem to have much of a chance, even in this leftward-shifting Latin America, in part because most of the new leftist governments don’t share the Venezuelan leader’s agitational, provocative style and discourse. But the main problem is the differing development levels, economic structures and priorities of their respective countries, which make it difficult to articulate a continental trade strategy that could neutralize the one the United States is seeking to impose.
Where does NicaraguaIs Nicaragua inserted into this renovation process or are we and will we continue to be a small self-involved country on the sidelines of the political and ideological changes that are giving our region a breath of fresh air?
fit into all this?
Nicaragua’s November elections tend to be easily forgotten in all the international media analyses of this crowded electoral year in Latin America. It is an apt expression of how out of focus we’ve become. Be that as it may, FSLN leader Daniel Ortega never loses a national or international opportunity to include himself in the list of victorious leftist leaders in 2006.
The calm before the storm?We are starting this electoral year with the hopefully erroneous perception that tensions will continue growing right up to election day. For all that, the current climate is being defined as “calm,” an ambiguous adjective that refers to the official and formal end to the exhausting conflict between the executive and legislative branches that dominated 2005 and which, given the interests at stake between the conflict’s three poles, had to end by the start of the electoral year.
And thus it was that 2005 closed with President Bolaños publicly admitting he had considered dissolving the National Assembly, and even granting an amnesty to former President Alemán, to resolve the crisis that had put him between the pact and a hard place. He said he had instead chosen to shelter behind international pressure and support and will the conflict to the next government. While it was the only way to defuse the crisis, it resolved nothing. It only bought time to see out the electoral season and the end of his own term.
The agreement Bolaños and Ortega reached in October froze the constitutional reforms at the center of the crisis until the next government takes office in January 2007. In exchange, the allegation of electoral crimes that the FSLN had dangled over Bolaños’ head disappeared with the wave of a Sandinista judge’s magic wand on December 7, culmination of the celebration of the Immaculate Conception and one of several days in the year when “things” tend to happen because most eyes are elsewhere. With the strangest of arguments, the judge definitively wiped out charges of electoral crimes against Bolaños officials, but left open the suit against other PLC leaders. It was one of the first expressions of the “end” of the Ortega-Alemán pact and the start of an Ortega-Bolaños one.
To complete the picture of “calm,” the International Monetary Fund backed Bolaños’ microeconomic management, thus freeing up previously negotiated funds, and wrote off Nicara-gua’s debt with it. Throughout 2005, the government had continually threatened us with the catastrophe that would befall the country if the Fund were to push us out of its nest.
Alemán’s pending caseOnly one more piece of the institutional crisis was left pending: Arnoldo Alemán’s judicial situation. How will his future be played out? When will he be released? For how many days or months will he remain in his hacienda-prison? How flexible or severe will the “family co-existence system” that allows him to participate freely in festivities, masses and political meetings be in the meantime? How will he be granted his freedom: an amnesty (pardon and a clean record) granted by the National Assembly or a definitive overturning of his case by a Sandinista court claiming “lack of evidence” (allowing him to then claim that his conviction for embezzling over $100 million in state funds was a “political” fabrication)?
The country remained on tenterhooks throughout 2005 awaiting answers to these questions, which will surely come in this electoral year. All PLC leaders have reiterated that the struggle for Alemán’s definitive freedom will continue to be a “priority” for their party and its National Assembly representatives in 2006. And it is clear that for Alemán himself freedom takes clear precedence over the PLC winning the presidency in November.
Starvation wagesThe new institutional “calm” coexists with an accumulation of social tragedies, the most vital of which is the chronic malnutrition of a third of the national population, something especially serious in children under four years old whose neuron connections are still being formed in their brains. This silent tragedy that is mortgaging Nicaragua’s future is met with mere resignation.
In early February a coordinated FAO-government study unveiled a “basic food basket” of 39 products representing the minimum daily calories needed to ensure an adequate diet. The problem is that this basket costs over 2,000 córdobas a month (roughly $115), while the minimum wage for those lucky enough to have a job is between 800 and 1,800 córdobas, depending on the area of work, and a third of the active population is either unemployed or underemployed.
The demand for better wages has been causing quite a stir since November. First public health system doctors went on strike to force negotiations with the government over their pathetically low salaries. In January they were joined by the health workers’ union, FETSALUD. The government refuses to respond to their just demands claiming that the IMF has prohibited Nicaragua from increasing the official salary mass, an excuse the IMF has not contradicted publicly but has reportedly denied in private meetings with members of civil society.
The medical strike makes the demand for a profound restructuring of salaries even more urgent. The IMF knows it; in fact everybody but the government is talking about it. But even high-level Sandinista-aligned public officials are keeping a low profile on this issue, because any readjustment would involve a profound review of the mega-salaries of the top 0.7% of government officials that devour a full quarter of the state payroll.
Acrobatics on the December is traditionally a month of truces in the crises du jour and of Christmas parties laced with booze and short on carols where the political class plots a winning strategy. This year it seems no one was up for the game. December passed calmly, and the transactions were put off to the new year. During the first half of January, however, the election of the National Assembly’s new board focused media attention and political energies, turning into a nine-day spectacle in which the political performers’ high-wire acrobatics led to bets on who would end up in each post.
parliamentary high wire
The seemingly interminable battle also involved incalculable hours of debate and mediation by President Bolaños and Cardinal Obando. Although the election of this presiding body is always fraught with deals and strange maneuvers, nothing quite like this has ever happened before. The squabble had embellishments that were both confusing (who was allied with whom, why and for what?) and grotesque (such as the case of Sandinista legislator Gerardo Miranda, who in the lapse of 24 hours went from being a traitor to the sacred cause of the people to heroic infiltrator of the enemy ranks). But more than anything, it was depressing, because the struggle for each post only revealed personal interests, electoral grandstanding and a ferocious dispute over the financial resources corresponding to the board’s budget, each of its posts and the gaggle of advisers that come pecking around them. These resources are especially coveted in election years.
When the dust settled, it turned out that Eduardo Gómez had been elected president of the new board. Gómez was a colorless pro-Alemán Liberal with no personal profile who supported Bolaños during the crisis by joining his tiny Blue and White legislative bench and thus represented a “consensus” figure. The PLC and its allies outstripped the FSLN in quantity and quality both on the board and in parliamentary commissions. With the apparent end of the Ortega-Alemán pact, the FSLN bench no longer enjoys the virtual power it had in the legislative branch last year as it has half a dozen fewer seats than the PLC.
Orlando Tardencilla, now on the bench of the Christian Alternative Party, allied to Herty Lewites’ Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, was also elected to the board, where he will represent the issues prioritized by the Herty 2006 Alliance this year. They include opposing any amnesty for Alemán, reforms to the Judicial Career Law and the creation of a state development bank to support small and medium producers.
Other important legislation on the parliamentary agenda for this electoral year include reforms to the tax code, a free trade zone bill, a new penal code, an administrative career bill and a public information access bill. But there is no reason to expect any reflective debate. “They will be approved with all possible speed,” announced Gómez, because the legislators “are going to be off campaigning.”
Preparing fraud?There have been increasing tensions and acrid readjustments between the PLC and FSLN since October, when Daniel Ortega decided to pull the plug on the constitutional reforms crisis and cut a deal with Bolaños. In so doing, he declared an end to the PLC-FSLN pact, from which Ortega milked many more advantages than Alemán without even giving up the master key to Alemán’s freedom.
The upcoming electoral period also dictated this distancing. Neither the FSLN nor the PLC can win votes with a common discourse. The FSLN has to start coming down hard on corruption and in favor of the poor again, while the PLC needs to hoist the banner of “democracy,” which is the Liberal catchword for anti-Sandinismo.
What neither band had anticipated is that this year’s electoral process has a novel political twist: other groups are competing for both the anti-Sandinista banner and the standard of social sensitivity and honest government. The first is being raised by the anti-Sandinista alliance supporting neo-liberal banker Eduardo Montealegre and the other by the alliance backing former Managua mayor Herty Lewites, expelled from the FSLN a year ago for daring to contemplate running against Ortega in the party primaries.
The pre-electoral break between the PLC and the FSLN is most visible in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), one of the fields best seeded by the pact. There hasn’t been a day of peace and harmony between the three electoral magistrates who answer to the PLC and the three loyal to the FSLN since a date was set for the election of the Caribbean coast’s autonomous regional governments. CSE president Roberto Rivas, who defends the political and economic interests of Cardinal Obando, has unconditionally sided with the Sandinistas since the détente between Obando and Ortega, thus giving them a one-vote majority on any decision.
Whether spurred by rancor or hard evidence, charges of technical maneuvers to manipulate the voter card issuing process and the electoral rolls to alter the Caribbean regional election results in March have multiplied against the FSLN. Is the FSLN really prepared to organize such a technical fraud? And, if so, would it be a trial run for November’s general elections?
Still open questionsIt is not only such justifiable political-technical fears that are triggering uncertainty as we look toward November. A lot of questions about that electoral race don’t yet have a clear answer. Will there really be four serious options—two Sandinista and two anti-Sandi-nista—on the national ballot? It would be healthy and useful to allow the population the political test of deciding among these four options. If the elections are really honest and transparent, this could measure many things, some of them related to the leftist consciousness that much of our population still clings to.
Or will the Right, now split into three Liberal groups with a smattering of Conservatives (Alemán’s PLC, Montealegre’s ALN-PC and Alvarado’s APRE), finally reunite? Flaunting his lack of tact, US ambassador in Managua Paul Trivelli has continually made public declarations against Alemán while holding not very secret meetings with other Liberals to achieve this unity. Are other embassies also involved in the effort to create a single anti-Sandinista alliance in the style of the UNO coalition of 14 parties on whose ticket Violeta Chamorro won in 1990? Alemán is still the apple of discord blocking even such a fragile unity as the short-lived UNO. Is the United States banking on Montealegre, convinced that the PLC is now a spent comet, lacking financial resources and adrift without its leader?
Assuming the Liberals don’t make common cause around Montealegre, which PLC presidential hopeful will Alemán hand-pick from the seven seeking his blessing, who must make a pretense of democratically facing off against each other in a party primary he’s organizing from his hacienda-prison? Will he, as some have predicted, choose a loser to facilitate Daniel Ortega’s victory, supposedly in exchange for his definitive release from his 20-year prison sentence? If things go according to schedule, the final PLC candidate won’t be known until April, which leaves time for lots of new twists and turns.
And the most crucial questionAnother question is whether there is still enough political space—and time—for the PLC to block Eduardo Montealegre’s candidacy and the FSLN to do the same with Herty Lewites. International pressure has apparently undermined the temptation and eaten away at the time needed to accomplish it. But nothing is ever sure in a country where “justice has been politicized and politics judicialized,” as OAS Secretary José Miguel Insulza so accurately put it when he discovered in situ just how hard it is to mediate Nicaragua’s political conflicts.
The most important question of all, however, is what National Assembly candidate lists these four possible options will present. Many critical issues will be determined by the correlation of forces in the post-election National Assembly. Independent of whether one side will have a big enough majority to push through the constitutional reforms being bandied about, these new legislators will have to face the huge problems created in the institutions and in national life by seven years of the PLC-FSLN pact. They will also have to decide whether or not to start responding to the population’s urgent problems. In sum, the party slates will be the real indicator of whether changes for Nicaragua are even remotely possible through elections.
NeoliberalismThe elections are coming at a dramatic moment for Nicaragua’s future, because it’s questionable whether our country can resist five more years of neoliberal-ism and the pact’s spurious influences. Our electoral process is also taking place during a dramatic moment for Latin America, one of renewal and revitalization of the Left, which has created enormous expectations and hopes for many and threatens others. The failure of neoliberalism to justify and legitimize the tremendous social inequalities and worsening poverty among Latin Americans, which has formed the backdrop to the Left’s victories on the continent, is also part of Nicaragua’s electoral equation.
isn’t the only problem
But in our case this failure doesn’t explain everything. It gets confused with the country’s many other failures: widespread corruption and the extraordinary social tolerance it still enjoys; the impunity and state-as-booty that serve as unshakable pillars of the political culture; the collapse if not of the political parties as such, then of the doctrinal principles of liberalism and the FSLN; the Catholic Church’s complicity with the abuses of power committed by the political elites in recent years; the penetration of drug trafficking; and the sullying of the judicial system and other state institutions.
Daniel Ortega has Indifferent to the FSLN’s doctrinal and moral disintegration, Daniel Ortega seizes on any opportunity to present himself to the Nicaraguan electorate and to Latin American public opinion as the national expression of the struggle against neoliberalism and the renaissance of the Latin American Left, while his electoral campaign manager, spokesperson and wife Rosario Murillo takes over the party platforms to announce that the FSLN will return to govern “with eternal light.” But the differences between the FSLN and the Brazilian, Uruguayan, Argentine, Bolivian or Chilean Left are infinitely greater than those separating Daniel’s FSLN from Alemán’s PLC.
betrayed his leftist credentials
With the exception of Chile, where a leftist coalition was voted into office in 1970 and held it until the US-backed military coup headed by General Pinochet put an end to that experiment, all of Latin America’s newly elected leftist governments are making their debut in presidential office. Some are an expression of the maturation of broad social movements (Bolivia), others of the dignifying of women and their equal place in society (Chile), but all share an anti-corruption, anti-neoliberal emphasis.
The FSLN currently controlled with an iron hand by Daniel Ortega has already governed. In the 15 years since it was voted out of office, it has tried to disarticulate, co-opt or pervert any legitimate and autonomous social movement that has emerged. Its attitude to women’s rights is a scandalous matter of public record, as is its attitude to corruption, starting with the “piñata,” continuing with the fraudulent collapse of Interbank and culminating with the infamous photo of FSLN leaders celebrating the pact with Alemán, one of the leading symbols of corruption on our continent—which is saying something.
Tabaré Vásquez’s Broad Front raised the struggle against corruption in Uruguay as one of its main banners, causing Uruguayan writer and poet Mario Benedetti to proclaim confidently when Vásquez took office that “corruption is finished.” Nobody in his right mind would make such a claim if Ortega were to win November’s elections in Nicaragua. Tabaré’s Front is a retaining wall against the tsunami of corruption affecting Latin America. Ortega’s has fed the tsunami that has drowned Nicaragua in a sea of corruption and impunity in recent years.
Latin America’s leftist movements have come to power with agendas that aim to provide authentic bases for developing alternative strategies, policies and visions to neoliberalism. The FSLN has been incapable of moving beyond an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist discourse that, as deceased poet José Coronel Urtecho, whose hundredth birthday we are celebrating, would say, consists of common and insincere phrases for the public plaza The FSLN has neither the principles nor the strategies to structure a government program that could represent a serious challenge to the neoliberal trend dominating Nicaragua today.
We have another Left For all that, the renewal and revitalization of Latin America’s Left does have an expression in Nicaragua today in the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo, nurtured by Sandinista leaders who at different moments and in different ways opposed the betrayal of the FSLN’s original principles .
Not without difficulties, they have been joined by Sandinista and non-Sandinista men and women who are participating in this electoral struggle for something more than the perks of power. They dream of social justice, national sovereignty and equality, the three eternal banners of the Latin American Left.
If this new Nicaraguan Left is to have any chance of winning the elections it will need to participate in clean elections. In any event, we have the Movement for the Rescue of Sandi-nismo to thank for preventing Nicaragua from being beached by the renovating currents of the Latin American Left and it is thanks to this movement that we can look southward with hopeful complicity as November’s elections approach.